Making a good paella is all about layering the flavors you have, which could be anything from lobster and clams to chicken and chorizo. Then there’s the sofrito, an aromatic mixture of garlic, tomatoes, peppers and onions cooked in olive oil, as well as saffron and rice.
But the key ingredient, in Zach Lutton’s opinion, is the stock.
That’s what the owner of Zedric’s Healthy Gourmet to Go believes, and it’s what he says helped him win second place in last year’s Paella Challenge at the Pearl Brewery. This year’s challenge is Sunday, and Lutton will be back, hoping to move up to first place. To give himself a warmup and promote the event, he offered a demonstration of how to make the Spanish dish during a recent Pearl Farmers Market. If the reaction of the crowd is any indication, his bounteous tray topped with heads-on prawns, mussels, clams, baby octopi, chorizo, peas, red bell peppers and even some lemon halves should keep him in the running.
“The stock is the most important ingredient in the whole dish,” he said, adding that he had made his with both lobster bodies and chicken. “It is the flavor of the paella.”
But that doesn’t mean you’re home free if you’ve got good stock. Paella takes practice, Lutton said.
“This isn’t a quick thing,” he told the crowded class during his cooking demonstration. “Take your time with it. Practice it a few times.”
To begin, decide the ingredients you are going to use. Start with the rice, which should be short grain, such as Bomba, not arborio, which is the rice used in risotto. If chicken is on the list, brown it in some olive oil at the bottom of the pan, but don’t cook it through. You can remove it and use the oil base to make your sofrito, though Lutton doesn’t. He slow cooks his for two hours and lets it rest over night.
But this the time to add it to the pan. Then the rice goes in and each grain gets coated. This is the point when the chicken returns to the pan as well as the chorizo, followed by the stock. Again, this is not risotto, so you don’t stir and stir until each last drop of stock has been absorbed. In fact, you don’t stir the dish at all as it cooks over the heat. But you do need to watch it. After 15 minutes or so, “when you see the rice coming up and the liquid disappearing, you’re headed in the right direction,” the chef said.
Be careful that too much liquid doesn’t disappear or you could burn your paella. Expert paella makers want a crusty bottom, which is also known as socarrat, but no one wants it burned. And Lutton advised beginners not to worry about that. He admitted that he doesn’t pay attention to that when he’s making paella, though it is one of the categories paellas are judged on in competitions.
He was more concerned about getting the seasoning right. Paella is a subtle dish, so a strong spice such as saffron has to be used judiciously. “Don’t add too much saffron, because it can overpower the dish,” he said. He limits his other seasonings to salt and pepper.
Shortly before the broth had been absorbed, Lutton and his assistants added the seafood to the top, again not stirring the mixture. Instead, they planted the bottom of the shellfish into the rice mixture, so the heat could cook them, allowing the mussels and clams to open. The enormous prawns were set in a ring at the center, while the baby octopi were arranged in a ring around the outside. Peas and red peppers were sprinkled on top, adding color as well as flavor.
The entire pan was then covered in aluminum foil so it could rest before serving. The crowd was getting a little hungry, waiting for a sample. “I promise y’all’ll eat soon,” he said with a chuckle. “Just give me about 10 more minutes.”
Tenting the pan allowed the steam to cook any of the seafood above the rice. It also released an enticing aroma that had people eager to try a dish, which Lutton and one of his assistants spooned up in generous amounts, making sure people could taste whatever they wanted from the array of meats that had been included.
Only Lutton seemed to find fault with the paella, which he said was slightly soupy. “But it’s still good, no matter what,” he added. “That stock is awesome.”
If you want to make your own paella, be aware that proportions vary depending on the size of the pan used. Pans run in size from 7 1/2 inches to those more than several feet wide. Your best bet is to find a recipe, such as Leslie Horne’s for Texas Quail, Chorizo and Mushroom Paella, which was created for a 15-inch paella and serves about six people. You can find paella pans and burners at GauchoGourmet, 935 Isom Road, and Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina in the Pearl Brewery, 312 Pearl Parkway.
You can also make paella any way you like. In Spain, you might find some cooks using pasta instead of rice. You could use only vegetables or only seafood, eliminate the seafood entirely or add what you have in the freezer.
I judged a non-traditional paella challenge in Austin last fall alongside James Canter, the chef who won last year’s Paella Challenge. We tasted a Hawaiian paella seasoned with jamaica, or hibiscus flowers, and another topped with fried eggs and avocado in a ranchero style. One team offered a chicken tinga paella with radishes and cotija cheese. There was even a dessert paella, which was actually more like rice pudding. The winner was a soul food paella made with pig’s feet, ham hocks and chicken gizzards among an array of down-home ingredients. The pictures below illustrate that the type of paella you make is bounded only by your own imagination.
For information on the fourth annual Paella Challenge, click here.